Mike Royko is on vacation. The following column was selected from among his favorites. It was originally published in March 1977.
I really hope O'Brien made it home all right. Undercover work can be risky.
But let me start at the beginning.
The phone rang at about 5 p.m. The operator said it was a collect call from O'Brien.
I wasn't expecting a call from anybody named O'Brien. So I asked her where the call was being placed.
"In Chicago," she said. I accepted.
"My name's O'Brien," he said. "You want a big story?"
I'll take a little story. What is it about?
"Bribes. Corruption. Payoffs."
Who, what, where, how?
"Awright, take this down. I just got off work. I'm sitting in a bar. And I just saw a cop take a payoff. I don't like it. So I got his badge number. It's . . . Got that?"
Got it. How big was the payoff, could you see?
"Yeah. What happened was this. He came in here, and told the bartender he wanted two packs of Winstons, but the cop didn't give him any money. I was watching. Not a cent."
"Yeah, two packs."
Well, look, O'Malley.
Sorry. But two packs of smokes isn't really that shocking.
"What'ya mean? I pay for my smokes, let him pay for his. Are you condoning it?"
Absolutely not. Thank you for the information.
"Don't mention it."
The phone rang a half-hour later. The operator said it was another collect call from O'Brien.
"I forgot to tell you where the tavern was," he said. "And I got the bartender's name. It's Eddie. I heard a guy call him that."
"Right. I'll call you again later."
An hour later the operator called collect again.
"Listen," O'Brien said, "it happened again. I jus' saw it. Except it was worsh."
"An' cigars. Thish time it was two packs Kools and one pack Luckies, and two cigars. He din pay anything. The dirty crook. I got his badge number. It's . . ."
Thanks, O'Brien. But why don't you call it a night? Go home to your wife.
"To hell with the wife. I'm on to this thing now. I'm not going to quit jus' when it's gettin' good."
But you sound tired, O'Brien. Your speech is even slurred.
"Don't worry 'bout me. Jus' you sit tight. I'm on these guys."
Another hour went by before the next call.
"O'Brien here. G'nother one."
"Nhh-nhh. A drink. Din' pay."
What kind of drink?
Are you all right, O'Brien?
"Din get badge nummer. Too dark. But I can tell you what he looks like."
What does he look like?
"Big. He's big."
Call it a night, O'Brien.
"N'er mind. I'll get more."
The last call came a half-hour later. O'Brien was shouting.
"Take down these badge numbers!"
More orange juice?
"No. They threw me out. I called 'em chiselers, and they threw me out. Two of 'em."
O'Brien, go home. It's late.
"No, sir. I'm goin' back in there. I'm not takin' this from chiselers. I'll call you back when I'm done with 'em."
That was the last I heard of O'Brien.
So I'm writing this because I want Mrs. O'Brien to know why he was out late. She should know that he was trying to root out corruption.
I mean, in case she thought he was just goofing around.